Just as Hemingway said Huck Finn was the well-spring of all American literature, it’s easy to argue that Show Boat, the 1927 Ziegfeld, Kern, and Hammerstein show on the story by Edna Ferber, gave birth to the American musical. (Take a look at what bowed that season on Broadway to see the context…Ziegfeld Follies, various “Scandals,” revues, and the Gershwins’ unsuccessful “Oh, Kay! spotting just a few.)
It wasn’t just that Show Boat‘s story unfolded through the music (rather than merely, “gee, I think I’ll sing a song now” a set up in so many earlier shows), or that it tackled the themes of race and what it means to be an American–core issues to be worked on in musicals from “Oklahoma” through “West Side Story,” it’s also that score! Jerome Kern knew his way around a tune, to wit, ‘Ol’ Man River,’ here performed by the great Jamaican bass, Sir Willard White (a notable Wotan among many other roles–which gives you a sense of the not inconsiderable vocal demands of SB, too.)
Funny story: Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein reportedly got peeved while attending parties when somebody would ask a pianist to play “Jerome Kern’s ‘Ol’ Man River.’ ” She shot back, “Jerome Kern didn’t write “Ol’ Man River,” he wrote, “Da-da, da-duh.” My husband wrote, “Ol’ Man River.” And not just the lyrics, he wrote the book too. So spare a moment for the great Oscar.